They had grown up only two suburbs apart, both commuted to the city for university and somehow Natalie and Thomas never crossed paths. With a distant appreciation for his work, in 2016, Natalie conducted an interview with artist, Thomas Quayle.
NW: Over the past few years, Australian art has been shifting its perceptions in regards to the distinction between art and craft, with ceramics at the forefront of this conversation. What drew you to working with clay as your predominant medium?
TQ: It has been amazing watching the development of ceramics in recent years; ceramics itself is such a diverse and expansive medium. There have been some amazing articles written by Garth Clarke in relation to this exact subject, and the distinction between art and craft is a topic I see constantly debated by people within the ceramic community. Ceramics as a community is highly embracing of not only its history but its future, not only its sophistication but its utilitarian and every day nature. The ceramic community especially within Australia is a very welcoming environment with regular ceramic conferences in Gulgong run with the help of the Mansfield family, the ceramic triennial which travels to a different state every year, as well as the wood fire conferences. These events provide a unique opportunity for emerging artists, crafts people and established artists to mingle and share experiences, techniques and debate anything ceramic.
My love for ceramics did not begin until I began at university. I myself was a painter before I moved to working with clay. My hands were drawn to the tactile nature of the medium as opposed to paint. With paint the goal is to manipulate the medium into representing something completely different to what it is in order to create an image, however what I discovered with clay was a conversation between the artist and the materials the artist uses. When building something out of clay you need to have a complete understanding of the material and its limitations and strengths.
Whilst I was studying at the national art school completing my ceramics rotation I made one of my first pots, the horrible and ugly pot I created served to solidify my original hatred for the material. However the next day I decided to try a new approach, I built a pot with the intention of making it collapse. I did this by coiling the pot to one side until it had reached its breaking point and then in order to rescue it and add balance and stability back to the piece I began to coil in the opposite direction. This was the first time I developed an understanding of a three dimensional medium and working with a material which will only allow you to do manipulate its form as much as it is willing. Clay has a life all of its own and although it can be manipulated and it can be controlled it requires a great deal of understanding and collaboration between the artist and the medium itself to achieve anything grand.
NW: A collection of your work deals with ideas of isolation and solitude. Is this a very personal exploration for you within your practice? What sources feed your inspiration?
TQ: It is an incredibly personal exploration of my life and experience but, I like to see my works as a conduit for self-exploration for every person. My work is based on my younger years specifically my teenage years and the feeling of rejection, ostracism and isolation. I spent a great deal of my younger years alone or being abused by my peers. But this is not an uncommon phenomenon and that is what I see as the beauty of my works.
The works are based around loneliness which although makes us feel so separate from those around us, actually unite us. The concept of loneliness is so universally felt that it becomes something that while making us feel so distanced from one another in actual fact connects us all. My works are usually displayed as single figures so that they have a conversation with their viewer. I want the viewer to see my work and the expressions on their face and consider when they last felt the same way as the figure they are viewing. The works are there not to depress people with their melancholy appearance but to comfort those who view them, for me it is my way of saying to people it is ok to be sad because I will be sad with you.
NW: The gaze and human connection have been an important component of your practice from your earlier busts in 2012/13 to your more recent full-figure works. Can you explain your exploration of the gaze and scale a bit more?
TQ: Scale in itself is a very important factor in the works which anyone creates. For myself scale dictates the way that people approach or experience my works and I make use of this idea to dictate the contact I wish for the viewer to have with the work.
I will create small works if I want to present the viewer with a scene or narrative, this is usually when I want to express a specific story and dictate the way that the viewer should interpret the work. Creating works of a smaller scale is useful to draw the viewers focus, as it forces the viewer to only pay attention to what you have presented to them, as they move closer and closer to the work the rest of the world is blocked out and for that moment your work becomes their world.
If I make works of a large or life size/ relatable scale the reason is because I want the viewer to consider themselves in relation to the figure and the environment. Differing from the small scale which makes the viewer an observer of a scene the large scale works place the audience within the narrative and force them to engage with the sculptural works as they would with any other person. The purpose of this is that the viewer becomes an active and essential participant in the narrative of the works. In this way scale and the gaze are very much an important part of my process. Understanding how I want the viewer to experience the message I am creating through my work is the very first step taken before anything is created.
NW: You sometimes slap, hug or punch your work to create a more unpredictable end product. What drew you to this very physical act of distortion?
TQ: This style of work was actually a happy accident. I created the series I refer to as the “negative self portraits” after I was directed by a lecturer to create a life size realistic head using very specific measurements. I worked on the portrait for more than three days and after staring at the misshapen and awkward face I had been looking at for so many days I decided to rip the eyes out of its head. This vicious attack on the human form was not unfamiliar to me as when I used to paint I would often depict aspects of myself I found undesirable or frustrating in a highly exaggerated manner as a sort of release of those feelings. Often this meant destroying or distorting the eyes as a reference to a feeling of inadequacy in relation to my artworks. I had never done this style of work in a 3D form, but what I found was that the sculptural form was much more suited these works.
I continued to build an entire series around this idea, always making sure that the marks I made had a specific relation to how I felt about particular situations relating to my reactions and relationships with other people. This is also the reason for these works all having marks made by parts of the human body and not by tools. These works are very much a therapy of sorts for myself and takes me away from expecting a strict and precise finish for the artworks I create.
NW: Your sculptures are not unfamiliar with being in public spaces – from your front yard in Glenfield to Sculpture by the Sea and Hidden at Rockwood Cemetery. What drives you to take your art out of the gallery setting and into alternative environments or non-traditional environments?
TQ: I enjoy seeing my work travel, and one of the best parts of that is hearing stories from people who recognise these works, or even the people who knock on my door to ask to take photos of these pieces. The gallery and the outdoors both serve different purposes in how work is presented and how accessible the work is. I like to think of my work as a statement or as my way of having conversations with people I have never met before or people I will never meet. I often think of the people who saw my sculptures at Sculpture by the Sea and how I have had a conversation with them without them ever hearing my voice. Gallery shows are exciting and wonderful and I love the formality that they provide but on the other hand I enjoy the relaxed and approachable nature of works which are displayed outdoors where people feel like they can touch the works and enjoy them free of the strict environment which galleries can create. My favourite thing to see is people who approach my life sized works to hug them. I myself hug my works and it is a wonderful feeling but when I see others do the same it warms my heart to think that they would respond in such a human way to something which I have created from what is essentially mud.
NW: You undertook a mentoring residency in Korea in 2015. What do you think is important for an effective mentor/mentee relationship? How did this experience shape your practice?
TQ: Korea was an amazing experience which I think about almost constantly. My mentor was Young-Sil Han who is an amazing Korean sculptor and a lovely person. Mentorships are a great way for experienced artists to share their knowledge with those who may have less knowledge and experience. These programs help to create a dialogue between the artists of today and the artists of tomorrow and provide an exchange of modern and traditional ideas as well as build lasting relationships.
My practice is constantly developing and evolving but one thing I think I took away from my experience in Korea is to never be afraid to be too literal. If you have a message it is worth expressing that through your work, it’s not always a benefit to be intentionally vague. The Korean residency brought together many different cultures and artists with varying skills and styles. Vipoo Srivilasa, Incheon Lee and the team from Clayarch museum Gimhae did an amazing job with the organization and execution of their residency.
NW: You recently went to Indonesia. Can you tell our readers a bit more about this experience? Had you been before and what it was like developing work in a different environment?
TQ: Indonesia was a huge surprise to me when I received the invite. I had never been to Indonesia and I have never travelled overseas alone so this was a very new and nerve racking experience for me.
There are always issues when working in a new environment especially in such a volatile material as clay but the challenge is always something I look forward to. Another issue with this residency was the kilns size and the fact that the kiln was a gas kiln. I always fire my works in an electric kiln as it is easier to control but gas firing works for a bisque scares me a great deal. My host though is an amazing artist who helped me perform the firing with only one minor issue the whole time and I am very grateful to him for all of his help. The people from Bali and Indonesia who I got to know were very welcoming and accommodating. I worked in the studio of a fantastic artist by the name of Agung Ivan whose tile horses are so beautiful in images and are mesmerising in real life. For a month I took over his studio to create works which revolved around my rollercoaster of emotions during this travel, from homesick to lonely, excited to affectionate. The team responsible for the organization of the Indonesian Ceramic Bienalle are very generous and friendly and took groups of participating artists around to many exciting areas within Bali. Although this was a residency which I was concerned about due to my lack of travel experience it quickly became an opportunity that I was glad to be part of.
NW: What advice would you give to other emerging artists trying to get their work seen?
TQ: My advice to young artists who want to have their work seen is to have a clear idea of their work’s intention. Find the right place to display your work to get your message across but don’t pigeonhole yourself into something. Explore different options of display and enjoy the experience and experimentation. None of us began in art because we wanted to be rich, and it is important to remember that we do this for reasons which we consider to be more valuable than money. It is important for emerging artists to apply for everything they can and to take as many opportunities as they are offered. Nobody should feel like the gallery is the be all and end all for artwork with the numerous options that are available in an industry which is constantly developing and evolving.
NW: Where can our readers find out more about you? Are there any upcoming projects they should keep an eye out for?
TQ: The best place to locate regular updates on my artworks is on my Instagram which is thomas_quayle_arts. I post a lot of progress photos and early stages of work on there for people interested in my process.
Thomas Quayle Arts on facebook contains some articles, interesting videos for artworks and is where I post information on any upcoming shows and events I am involved in.
My website is the location to visit if you are looking for the collection of my works and final product photos. There are images dating from my early years at university to my more recent works.
Recently I have been working on developing a new style of works and I am in the process of seeing where this will take me. I am taking a bit of time away from exhibiting to develop new techniques and refine the works I am making. The best way to find out what will be happening with my works is to follow my Instagram or facebook as opportunities pop up all the time and many of these are last minute. Alternatively I am able to be reached through my website so anyone looking to reach out and contact me directly can always feel free to do so and I would be more than happy to reply.